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WHAT DOES the U.S. have in common with Liberia and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (aka Burma)?
These are the only three countries in the world that continue to avoid official adoption of the meter, liter and gram. The metric system is also known as SI, the Systeme International d’Unités, the International System of Units.
Well. There’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s French.
No, not exactly.
On July 13, 1790, Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State at the time, gave the U.S. House of Representatives a Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States. At its basis was a general decimalization to correct things that had generally grown haphazardly over time.
A real mess it was—and still is. The Imperial gallon, for instance, is 1.2009499255 U.S. gallons, that is, about 20 percent larger to the consternation of those considering mpg of British and U.S. cars. Miles per gallon? But which gallon?
As an example, back when Ford updated the Fiesta model in 2010, a fleet of these cars toured the U.S. hyping their superlative mpg. R&T analyzed matters in March 2010 with “Hybrid: Perception vs. Reality,” which included mpg data for a gasoline-engine Ford Fiesta, hybrid Toyota Prius and diesel Volkswagen Golf TDI.
Within a month of the article’s publication, it became known that these Fiestas had been equipped with trip computers calibrated in Imperial gallons.
In April 2010, the magazine corrected the Fiesta’s stint-by-stint and overall data; for instance, its overall average of 40.8 mpg Imperial became 34.0 miles per U.S. gallon. Data for the Toyota Prius and VW TDI needed no recalculation, 54.5 and 42.7 mpg U.S., respectively.
But back to the metric system. Leaders of the French Revolution, 1789 – 1799, promoted measurement based on logic and natural phenomena. They also wisely rejected a proposal by mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace to swap base 10 for a duodecimal (base-12) system.
However, the guillotine gave the metric system a bad name from which it still suffers, at least to some.
Back in the 1970s, there was an attempt by the U.S. Congress to adopt metrication. As R&T’s engineering editor, I was up to my slide rule in this. Already mixed in its English inches, European liters of displacement and U.S. gallons, for a while the magazine was into dual dimensioning, wheelbases in inches and millimeters as one example; power in SAE net hp and kW as another.
In retrospect, it was all a waste of time and paper.
There was a U.S. Metric Board back then promoting things like mile/kilometer sign postings. But by 1982, this organization got folded into the U.S. Department of Commerce, where it was allowed to die quietly.
Today, the U.S. as a country and we as car enthusiasts continue in dual American/SI thinking. Almost all science and engineering endeavors are accomplished in SI units. Yet miles per hour, quarts of milk and pounds of butter are how it is.
With plenty of good stories, like the well-intentioned driver who complained that 100 km/h seems so much faster than a good, honest 60 mph. Or gasoline being so much cheaper in liters than gallons: “Why, it’s a quarter the price!”
Yeah, 1/3.78541, to be specific.
According to Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet, there are those who say “Metric is definitely Communistic.” It’s also observed that others call metrication “an Arab plot ‘with some Frenchies and Limeys thrown in.’ ”
As I’ve noted before (http://wp.me/p2ETap-2p4), I decry the politicizing of such things.
I must read Marciano’s book. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014